Intonation and Pitch-Accent

When people learn a new language, they often ignore pronunciation and intonation until it’s too late. That’s what happened with me with Japanese.

I started learning Japanese when I was 16. My neighbor had lived there for a while, and had some books. I borrowed the books and learned some basic Japanese. When I was in college, I learned Japanese formally, but the classes were lecture-style. We didn’t learn conversational Japanese, and just did a lot of passive study. So, pronunciation, intonation, etc, were not emphasized. It felt like this skit starring comedian 志村けん (Shimura Ken):

On the other hand, when I was in high-school, I studied Mandarin in school, and we spent a lot of time practicing accent and pronunciation because it’s essential for Chinese. I haven’t studied Chinese at all in almost 20 years, but I recently had a Chinese conversation and I could still speak/pronounce OK. Not great, but my “accent” sounded more Chinese, less American. I couldn’t say much, but I still pronounced it correctly even after 20 years.1

So anyway, my wife has told me before that when I speak Japanese I have a strong accent. For example, when I say the English word “important”, it sounds like imPORTant because I put stress on the second-syllable a lot.2 Ideally, you should pronounce Japanese very flat, and equal weight in each syllable. Take this example phrase: Yokohama wa samui. If each hiragana-syllable is 1 beat, it should be pronounced evenly like yo-ko-ha-ma-wa-sa-mu-i- (よ-こ-は-ま-は-さ-む-い). When I say it though, it sounds something like yo-ko-HA-ma-WA-sa-MU-i.

Anyhow, recently I’ve been listening to a series of Japanese-language podcasts about learning Korean called サランヘヨ (mentioned here). The podcasts are made by a pair of Japanese people who have been living in Korea for 15+ years, married locally and have kids. It’s interesting to see how Japanese learn Korean, compared to Westerners, because the languages are more similar.

In several lessons, the main host talks about intonation. Korean language has no stress, like Japanese, but the intonation has a kind of “back-rhythm” (lit. 裏リズム in the podcast) so it sounds like low-high-low-high-low-high, etc. In one episode, the host impersonated a Korean person speaking Japanese (not in a bad way, just a demonstration). The grammar and words were correct, but even as a Westerner like me you could definitely hear a different accent. Similarly, when Japanese speak Korean, they have to be careful to learn the right intonation or they will sound wrong.

I mention all this because when I speak Japanese (or Korean), I have to be careful of two things:

  • Stress – I have to get into a habit of speaking each syllable flat and even weight.
  • Accent/intonation – When to use flat, high tone, and when not to. I wrote an older post about it too.

The problem is that most English-language sources do not teach accent/intonation at all! I think some Western sources on Japanese/Korean are using outdated methods. Fortunately, I started using again.3 I used it years ago, but I stopped subscribing to focus on listening to Japanese podcasts, books, etc. Anyhow, I paid for a short-term Premium subscription and asked for help in fixing my conversation. They suggested following the “Newbie Season 2” series which focuses on accent and such.

I learned a lot from the first lesson, even though I studied Japanese for years. For example, when you say you are “American” (amerikajin) or “German” (doitsujin) and such, the standard accent is “Amerika” (or any country) has a flat, high tone, but “jin” (人) is low and flat. I never knew that! 😮 No one ever explained that to me.

Anyhow, the point of this long post is: take intonation and pronunciation very seriously. It will save you a lot of problems later. If you have bad pronunciation now, invest time to fix it. You’ll thank yourself later. 🙂

P.S. Have a great weekend!

1 After that experience, I was kind of inspired to start learning Chinese again, but it’s a big investment of time, and I’m already busy. :p Maybe in the future.

2 Apparently, people in the South put stress on the first syllable: JU-ly, not Ju-LY which is how I pronounce it. Similarly, in Japan Tokyo dialect has different accent than Kansai dialect. The Korean-lesson podcast above mentioned that Koreans can pronounce Kansai dialect more easily than Tokyo dialect because the accents are more similar.

3 In the spirit of openness, I am a registered associate there. Clicking on the link above gives me some credit if someone subscribes.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Intonation and Pitch-Accent”

  1. The funny thing is that the judgement of a native speaker in any language of whom is a good speaker of that language, is correct pronunciation and little accent. Not to deny the importance of good pronunciation, but I’d say that having a large vocabulary is better. Well, in toned languages as chinese and vietnamese learning the tones is part of building the vocabulary, but still. Basically: what’s the point of having excellent pronunciation if you have nothing to say? It’s an interesting challenge for any second language learner of where to put the effort, especially considering the opinion of the native speakers of what is considered good language.


    1. Hi Jeremias,

      Speaking from experience, I’m actually more impressed when people learning English have good pronunciation. I had a co-worker who was Russian, and very smart, but he had a peculiar habit of using big, complicated words, but his style of speaking was slow and awkward. On the other hand, I had friend who was Swedish who sounded almost perfectly American when he talked.


  2. I’m sorry if my reply sounded critical or was hard to understand. I agree with you, and I also think it’s easier to understand speakers with good pronunciation in my own native language (Swedish). What I meant was that this is interesting from a linguistic point of view as pronunciation normally does not carry any meaning, it’s the words that do.


    1. Hi Jeremias,

      Not at all. 🙂 I hope reply didn’t sound critical either.

      I agree, it’s interesting that pronunciation has no meaning, but makes a big difference. I guess the reason is that with bad pronunciation, native speakers have to spend more time paying attention, and it makes them tired. A person can’t relax when talking because they’re too busy trying to understand what the other person is saying.

      So, I guess it’s not a question of meaning, but a question of how much you have to strain your ears. 🙂


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